LONDON — Diego Costa’s latest goal proved enough for Chelsea as they worked their way to a 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace.
1. Chelsea make it 11 wins in a row
A year to the day that Jose Mourinho was sacked, Chelsea celebrated an 11th successive Premier League win.
There is little need to look back in anger at their former manager, who is now at Manchester United and trailing in Chelsea’s wake. And chasers Liverpool (who play Everton on Monday) and Arsenal (who face Man City on Sunday) will kick off nine points behind a team threatening to become runaway leaders.
Yet this was not quite an anniversary waltz. Crystal Palace, fighting for their lives and perhaps the future of manager Alan Pardew, didn’t make life easy for Antonio Conte’s team in an encounter unlikely to be remembered as a classic.
Towards the close of a grinding, bitty first half full of niggling fouls, Chelsea at last found their gears. Eden Hazard dropped deep, beat a couple of opponents and then played the ball wide right to Cesar Azpilicueta, who had surged forward from defence. The Spaniard’s cross was excellent, Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey hesitated and Diego Costa required little invitation to nod in his 13th Premier League goal of the season.
Earlier, Costa’s long wait for a fifth booking of the season, a spell of good behaviour dating back to September, ended after a petulant hack at Joe Ledley as the striker was targeted throughout by angry, frustrated home fans. He will be absent from Chelsea’s home fixture with Bournemouth on Dec. 26 through suspension — so too will N’Golo Kante for the same accumulation — and they will undoubtedly miss the supreme aerial power he showed in scoring that ice-breaker, as well as his expertise in leading the line.
Before Costa’s goal, referee Jon Moss had been the game’s most central figure: Hazard was a regular recipient of heavy treatment as Chelsea laboured to find their flow. Palace mounted promising attacks, with Jason Puncheon missing their best chance, James McArthur heading wide and Puncheon unable to keep a free kick down.
Their threadbare confidence might have been sapped by Costa’s goal and the lapse in concentration that had led to it. Instead, to their credit, Palace pushed on with genuine determination, with Chelsea’s usual defensive three converted into a bank of five. Chances came and went for both teams, with Yohan Cabaye’s drive saved well by Thibaut Courtois and both Kante and Marcos Alonso going close for Chelsea.
Alonso later crashed a free kick off the crossbar as Chelsea pushed for a decisive second goal. Instead, their defence, which has conceded just twice during that 11-game streak, held out to complete the job.
2. Conte’s planning pays off
The omission of Cesc Fabregas despite a winning goal in Wednesday’s 1-0 win at Sunderland was the latest indication of Conte’s ruthless pragmatism. Reintroducing Nemanja Matic was designed to ballast Chelsea’s midfield against Palace’s robust play in the middle. Fabregas can be a liability in those encounters when steel is required, and the return of Eden Hazard to provide flair pushed the Spaniard to the bench.
Hazard, back after a minor knock, often had three defenders on his back but his close control and low centre of gravity usually kept them at bay. Fouling him was usually the only available option.
During early moments when Palace were building up momentum, Matic’s extra power was necessary. Kante can be a one-man midfield at times but was caught by James McArthur’s awareness in the early stages and probably should have been booked for cynically pulling the Scot down.
Chelsea wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, the latter playing against the club where he began his career, were prominent despite not being given the attacking space with which to support the likes of Costa and Hazard until late. It was Azpilicueta, rather than Moses, who crossed for Costa’s goal but Hazard’s vision had created the chance.
Like Fabregas’ benching, the preference of Willian over Pedro was another indication that Conte foresaw a bruising encounter. Fabregas came on in the 64th minute for Willian as Conte sought more composure in midfield. The Italian was proved correct in that, and Palace’s previous upper hand was surrendered just as he has been in so many decisions in Chelsea’s invincible run.
3. Clock’s ticking for Alan Pardew
How much longer can Alan Pardew last as Crystal Palace’s manager?
The manner of Wednesday’s defeat to Manchester United — Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s late goal to make the final score 2-1 — had cooled talk of Pardew’s imminent winning of the Christmas sack race. Yet one win since September makes his position parlous; so too might his comment after that victory, a 3-0 defeat of Southampton on Dec. 3, that the club’s American owners “perhaps don’t know a lot about football.”
There were flashes here of the quality within his squad through Zaha’s verve down the right flank and Puncheon’s zip in the centre. Palace didn’t sit back and await their fate. They both attacked and defended in numbers with the Selhurst crowd, who have seen their team win just five Premier League home games in 2016, admirably behind their men.
Yet there were audible gasps of disappointment when Puncheon dragged his shot wide in the 19th minute, a chance carved by full-back Martin Kelly’s adept cross. Then came loud deflation when Costa scored, though calls for the manager’s head could not be heard, despite it now being clear that a relegation battle is Palace’s reality.
There was credit enough in Palace’s performance to suggest that all is not lost but time is ticking on the manager. He faces a long nine-day wait until Palace’s next match, a Boxing Day lunchtime visit to Watford. That is, of course, if he is still in charge by then. His understandably fractious state of mind was evidenced by confronting the fourth official as Chelsea played down the clock.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.